Privateers are an inescapable part of war. Sometimes legal, sometimes on the grey margins of international law, sometimes de facto outlaws — but they are always there in some fashion or other. Boldly pillaging, making war a profitable sport.
To learn about America’s modern privateers we must turn away from the mainstream press, source of soothing platitudes, to Tom Engelhardt’s TomDispatch — a “must-read” for anyone interested in modern geopolitics.
“The Afghan Scam“, Ann Jones, TomDispatch, 11 Janaury 2009 — “The Untold Story of Why the U.S. Is Bound to Fail in Afghanistan.”
With Afghanistan, it always seems to be more and worse. More American (and NATO) troops “surging” in, more Taliban control in the countryside, more insurgent attacks, more sophisticated roadside bombs, more deadly suicide bombings, more dead American and NATO troops, more problems with U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan, more civilian deaths from American and NATO military operations, more U.S. bases being built, more billions of U.S. dollars needed for military operations — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently indicated that the build-up of U.S. forces alone in that country in the next fiscal year could cost an extra $5.5 billion — and, of course, yet more reports and studies indicating that everything yet tried to “stabilize” Afghanistan has gone desperately wrong.
And always these are followed by the insistence that more of the same militarily, a further build-up of coalition military forces, another five or 10 or 20 years of foreign “training” programs for Afghan forces still “not ready for the task” — no one asks how Taliban fighters, no less “Afghan,” prove so ready to fight without years of American training — is the only context for future success in “reconstructing” that country. Ann Jones, who was a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006 and wrote a moving book about the experience, Kabul in Winter, suggests just why this essentially repetitive formula, which will now pass as part of the new thinking of the Obama era, is bound to lead to more of the same. She focuses on the “reconstruction” part of the formula and shows just why, all military matters aside, it’s such a hopeless shuck. Can this, nonetheless, be the path the U.S. will head down in the year to come? It seems so.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the failure of American reconstruction in Afghanistan. While the U.S. has occupied the country — for seven years and counting — and efficiently set up a network of bases and prisons, it has yet to restore to Kabul, the capital, a mud brick city slightly more populous than Houston, a single one of the public services its citizens used to enjoy. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, they modernized the education system and built power plants, dams, factories, and apartment blocs, still the most coveted in the country. If, in the last seven years, George W. Bush did not get the lights back on in the capital, or the water flowing, or dispose of the sewage or trash, how can we assume Barack Obama will do any better with the corrupt system he’s about to inherit?
Between 2002 and 2008, the U.S. pledged $10.4 billion dollars in “development” (reconstruction) aid to Afghanistan, but actually delivered only $5 billion of that amount. Considering that the U.S. is spending $36 billion a year on the war in Afghanistan and about $8 billion a month on the war in Iraq, that $5 billion in development aid looks paltry indeed. But keep in mind that, in a country as poor as Afghanistan, a little well spent money can make a big difference.
The problem is not simply that the Bush administration skimped on aid, but that it handed it over to for-profit contractors. Privatization, as is now abundantly clear, enriches only the privateers and serves only their private interests.
The new plan for victory
Afghans protest that such a plan amounts to sponsoring civil war, which, if true, would mean that American involvement in Afghanistan might be coming full circle — civil war being the state in which the U.S. left Afghanistan at the end of our proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. American commanders, however, insist that they must use militias because Afghan Army and police forces are “simply not available.” Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, deputy commander of American forces, told the New York Times, “We don’t have enough police, [and] we don’t have time to get the police ready.”
This, despite the State Department’s award to DynCorp last August of another $317.4 million contract “to continue training civilian police forces in Afghanistan,” a contract DynCorp CEO William Ballhaus greeted as “an opportunity to contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the world [and] support our government’s efforts to improve people’s lives.”
Money for nothing…
When the inspectors general of the Pentagon and State Department investigated the U.S. program to train the Afghan police in 2006, they found the number of men trained (about 30,000) to be less than half the number reported by the administration (70,000). The training had lasted eight weeks at most, with no in-the-field experience whatsoever. Only about half the equipment assigned to the police — including thousands of trucks — could be accounted for, and the men trained were then deemed “incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work.”
The American privateer training the police — DynCorp — went on to win no-bid contracts to train police in Iraq with similar results. The total bill for American taxpayers from 2004 to 2006: $1.6 billion. It’s unclear whether that money came from the military or the development budget, but in either case it was wasted. The inspectors general reported that police incompetence contributed directly to increased opium production, the reinvigoration of the Taliban, and government corruption in general, thoroughly subverting much ballyhooed U.S. goals, both military and political.
Public money, vast private profits
… There are other peculiar features of American development aid. Nearly half of it (47%) goes to support “technical assistance.” Translated, that means overpaid American “experts,” often totally unqualified — somebody’s good old college buddies — are paid handsomely to advise the locals on matters ranging from office procedures to pesticide use, even when the Afghans neither request nor welcome such advice. By contrast, the universally admired aid programs of Sweden and Ireland allocate only 4% and 2% respectively to such technical assistance, and when asked, they send real experts. American technical advisors, like American privateers, are paid by checks — big ones — that pass directly from the federal treasury to private accounts in American banks, thus helping to insure that about 86 cents of every dollar designated for U.S. “foreign” aid anywhere in the world never leaves the U.S.A.
American aid that actually makes it abroad arrives with strings attached. At least 70% of it is “tied” to the purchase of American products. A food aid program, for example, might require Afghanistan to purchase American agricultural products in preference to their own, thus putting Afghan farmers out of business or driving even more of them into the poppy trade. (The percentage of aid from Sweden, Ireland, and the United Kingdom that is similarly tied: zero.)
… Often, in fact, only one of the preselected contractors puts in for the job and then — if you need a hint as to what’s really going on — just happens to award subcontracts to some of the others. It’s remarkable, too, how many former USAID officials have passed through the famed revolving door in Washington to become highly paid consultants to private contractors — and vice versa. By January 2006, the Bush administration had co-opted USAID altogether. The once independent aid agency launched by President Kennedy in 1961 became a subsidiary of the State Department and a partner of the Pentagon. …
The Afghan Scam
It’s not that American aid has done nothing. Check out the USAID website and you’ll find a summary of what is claimed for it (under the glorious heading of “Afghanistan Reborn”). It will inform you that USAID has completed literally thousands of projects in that country. The USAID loves numbers, but don’t be deceived by them. A thousand short-term USAID projects can’t hold a candle to one long, careful, patient program run, year after year, by a bunch of Afghans led by a single Swede.
If there has been any progress in Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul, it’s largely been because two-thirds of the reconstruction aid to Afghanistan comes from other (mostly European) countries that do a better job, and partly because the country’s druglords spend big on palatial homes and services in the capital. But the one-third of international aid that is supposed to come from the U.S., and that might make a critical difference when added to the work of others, eternally falls into the wrong pockets.
… As things now stand, Afghans, as well as Afghan-Americans who go back to help their homeland, have to play by American rules. Recently an Afghan-American contractor who competed for reconstruction contracts told me that the American military is getting in on the aid scam. To apply for a contract, Afghan applicants now have to fill out a form (in English!) that may run to 50 pages. My informant, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, commented that it’s next to impossible to figure out “what they look for.” He won a contract only when he took a hint and hired an American “expert” — a retired military officer — to fill out the form. The expert claimed the “standard fee” for his service: 25% of the value of the contract.
… Don’t think of such stories, and thousands of others like them, as merely tales of the everyday theft or waste of a few hundred million dollars — a form of well-organized, routine graft that leaves the corruption of Karzai’s government in the shade and will undoubtedly continue unremarked upon in the Obama years. Those multi-millions that will continue to be poured down the Afghan drain really represent promises made to a people whose country and culture we have devastated more than once. They are promises made by our government, paid for by our taxpayers, and repeatedly broken.
These stories, which you’ll seldom hear about, are every bit as important as the debates about military strength and tactics and strategy in Afghanistan that dominate public discourse today. Those promises, made in our name, were once said to be why we fight; now — broken — they remind us that we’ve already lost.
About the author
Ann Jones wrote at length about the failure of American aid in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan Books), a book about American meddling in Afghanistan as well as her experience as a humanitarian aid worker there from 2002 to 2006. For more information, visit her website. For a concise report on many of the defects in international aid mentioned here, check out Real Aid (pdf file), a report issued in 2005 by the South African NGO Action Aid.
If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below. You may find answers to your questions in these.
Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- about the Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles
- about the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars – other valuable reports
- about America – how can we reform it?
Some posts on the FM site about the war in Afghanistan:
Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008
Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
- Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
- Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
- Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
- “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009